|By Caroline Lupfer Kurtz
Hands-on research is what wildlife biology is
all about and the sooner students gain experience with field techniques, the
better. Thats why assisting with lynx and snowshoe hare population studies in the
Seeley-Swan Valley seemed like the ideal summer job to Kristina Schiller.
I got interested in lynx a few years ago, Schiller says, around the
time they were being reintroduced in Colorado. I began to realize there were not very many
left in the U.S.
Currently a senior in wildlife biology, Schiller says she felt the need for research
experience to complement her course work in vertebrate biology, ecology and forestry. She
applied for summer work experience through the National Science Foundation-funded Research
and Education Activities Program, directed by forestry Associate Professor Scott Mills.
Id never done anything like this before, she says. I loved
working in the field.
And work she did. For 10 weeks, from the end of classes to the beginning of the fall
semester, REAP interns received intensive training in field research methods. Then with
supervisors from UM, the U.S. Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Co., they plotted and
set traps, tagged animals, logged information on everything they trapped, took detailed
vegetation measurements, moved the traps and started all over again. The purpose of their
work was to better understand the population characteristics and predator-prey
relationship between lynx and snowshoe hares in the southern portion of their ranges.
The theory is that lynx and snowshoe hares have linked population cycles. An increase
in prey leads to an increase in predators followed by a decrease in prey and over time a
decrease in predator numbers in a given area as well. In the northern United States, this
cycle may be dampened, and researchers are interested in knowing why, especially now that
lynx have been added to the list of threatened species. Data gathered by REAP interns is
being used to help sort out these questions.
Interns worked 10 days on, four days off, at least eight hours a day, all outdoors.
Schiller and her research partner, Liz Bradley, also a senior in wildlife biology, worked
on lynx. The other two interns focused on snowshoe hares. All four had the chance to
switch around at the beginning of the summer, but eventually settled into smoothly working
teams. Schiller says the partner system was a good idea.
We got to know each other well and could coordinate our efforts to get the
job done as efficiently as possible, she says.
Interns received room and meals and a weekly paycheck. As part of REAP, they also
worked with staff of the Montana Natural History Center on ways to communicate their work
to a wider public during the school year. This past fall, for instance, Schiller developed
field-trip activities for schoolchildren visiting Missoulas Mount Jumbo. One outing
involved a demonstration of tracking animals by telemetry, using a radio-collared stuffed
rabbit and a hand-held antenna and receiver.
Schiller has many vivid memories of her summer research: overnights high in the Swan
Mountains, close-up observation of lynx kittens in their den and the chance to see many
animals most people never encounter in the woods, such as a bushy-tailed woodrat, marten
and fisher. Some mysteries also remain:
One day when we were checking our traps, I came upon a place that should have had
a trap, but it was no longer there, Schiller recalls. We looked all over but
couldnt find it. We knew there had to have been an animal in it because there was
some blood. But we never found out what took that trap.
The REAP experience gave Schiller some extra insight into what field studies are all
about. We want to help animals, but how do you design a plan that does that? How do
you figure out what you need to know in the first place?
In addition, Schiller says the experience has given her a leg up in the job market.
Although she is undecided about what she will do upon graduation, she is leaning toward a
career in science education.
My dream job would be to create and run an outdoor science camp for kids,
Schiller says. In fact, she is actively working on the idea with her father and a family
friend in her hometown of Menasha, Wis.
Schiller spent her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville but
transferred to UM because of the wildlife biology program.
I thought it would be easier to do a wildlife degree in a place with a lot of
wildlife, she says.